What hath digital good intentions wrought

It was uniquely powerful user research which demonstrated the bureaucratic brutality of the old carers allowance forms, and which changed that system for the better.  The user research philosophy undoubtedly works when you have a benevolent hierarchy interested in helping people, but will that describe the new Government?

If ‘user research is a team sport’, it has become increasingly necessary to check that everyone is actually playing for the same side. The institutions have adapted and now undermine good intent in favour of internal interests – user research is little more than a push poll used to justify what institutions wanted to do anyway.

The same applies to algorithms and AI – user research can find an argument to justify anything, no matter how harmful. Algorithms are used to justify choices that no human would be willing to justify to a court.

The data you need to run efficient and effective digital services is the same data you need to run just digital services. From the perspective of justice, the 13 data items identified by Dr Byrom serve as the indicators of potential discrimination in digital (justice) services. Instead, we focus on narratives from user research which don’t necessarily cover all real world user needs, and often policy just hopes that user research has caught everything.  

None of this is new or silo specific, it shows up across data and digital, from AI to algorithms, from business models to ‘patient involvement’. NHSX recently put out a call for “Patient Voice Advisors” – 2 people to cover the entire NHSX remit is ambitious, but will likely result in appointing professional astroturfers rather than engaged patients and real users for real questions. But it ticks the civil service boxes for involvement, and if each civil servant involved knows that every business model they propose will get gamed (they do and they will), they can still ignore it because it’s not their problem to solve.

The user research mantra of ‘you are not your user’ is entirely true, but contains an implicit assumption that those reading or commissioning the research care about the difference at all (or, more harshly, care about their users at all). Doing anything without user research is a crapshoot; but that doesn’t mean something based on user research can deliver something good – good is sometimes excluded by deliberate policy choice.

It is better to do user research than not – but it has to be both read, and not kneecapped at the beginning to only look at things that are politically palatable, and disincentive the other things. It is far easier to give technical assistance to those who already understand justice and the rule of law, than it is to teach Mark Zuckerberg about discrimination.

There is now an entire community who have to be served by UC who hear ‘service design’ and think of the vindictiveness of DWP’s choices in delivery – that is what service design and user research has delivered for them. Those people see the harms of ‘digital first’ from Government – and those harms are all digital is for them. It may be a well oiled machine for policy and well designed services, but what is the machine being used for?

GDS is part of the Government, (obviously), which sometimes causes political trouble at the office. Code for America avoided that problem by not having Political leadership – CfA is a not for profit who works for the people (and for a summary of the consequences of the distinction between the two, see the opening paragraph of the preface to Edward Snowden’s book). 

Where is the equivalent of ‘getCalFresh’ for Universal Credit? A better question is which organisation would you think of to build (and run) it? How would we know if it’s good?

Dec 2019
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